Speakers tout safety of fracking practices

jmurawski@newsobserver.comFebruary 3, 2012 

Speakers from the American Petroleum Institute, the lobbying arm for the oil and gas industry, said Thursday that the energy industry's self-policing standards should serve as a model for how North Carolina can regulate natural gas exploration and "fracking."

The influential Institute sponsored presentations in Raleigh to about 100 government officials, lawmakers and industry representatives, promoting the merits of its safety standards that, according to one talking point, "represent industry's collective wisdom."

"If you take a look at these three-ring binders we have out here, you have everything you need to do it right," speaker Jeff Brami, a retired Exxon Mobilgeologist, told the assembled crowd. "The API stands for a lot of things that are right."

Brami was referring to binders distributed by the Washington, D.C., lobbying group that contain safety rules the group says are reasonable and not excessive. Brami told the audience it was his moral obligation to promote industry standards because they are based on hard science and "don't deal with emotion."

Some of the state's most avid proponents of natural gas exploration offered assurances that North Carolina is not going to rubber stamp the energy industry's suggestions. Rep. Mike Hager, a Republican from Rutherford County, dismissed the idea that the energy companies will have the last word on how they should be regulated.

"They're a minimum," Hager said of the API industry standards after the presentations. "We need to ask what else can we add."

The API workshop is the industry's first organized response to conferences in this state sponsored by opponents of gas drilling who say the controversial practice endangers drinking water supplies and harms the environment. The presentations, at the downtown Raleigh Marriott hotel, were not open to the public, but the API allowed journalists and environmental advocates to attend.

Answering the critics

API is organizing to counter act critics as this state is debating what kinds of laws will be needed to regulate horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, which are currently not legal here.

Outside the Marriott, a handful of protesters milled about, displaying anti-fracking placards.

Geologists in 2008 published findings that North Carolina is sitting atop a 40-year-supply of natural gas trapped in prehistoric shale rock formations under Lee, Chatham, Moore and other counties. Proponents say natural gas is an affordable, clean-burning fuel that can offset burning dirty coal and importing oil from countries run by hostile regimes.

Hager said the state legislature could pass laws this summer that would legalize fracking, but contingent on all the necessary rules and laws being in place. For example, he said, before fracking can proceed, the state will need to hire inspectors to oversee the operational safety of drilling rigs.

As part of Thursday's workshop, David Miller, director of API's standards program, said the organization's standards are developed in an open process with the input of academics, environmentalists and government officials. He said API provisions have been adopted by federal and state agencies.

Brami, the Exxon Mobil retiree, said he explains to engineering students that the high standards make economic sense because they protect the industry from costly accidents.

"I would tell my students: Exxon Mobil doesn't care about geology; it doesn't care about chemistry; it doesn't care about physics," Brami said. "Exxon cares about profit. If you forget that, you'll have a very short career here."

Some of Brami's anecdotes elicited roars of laughter from the audience. Explaining the importance of industry self-policing, Brami emphasized that accidents can become legal and financial disasters for companies that cut corners to make budget.

"The projects I used to work, we used to ask, 'Who's the DI for this project?' " Brami said. "That's the Designated Inmate - that's the guy who's going to jail."

Murawski: 919-829-8932

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